Woman Banned from Yelp! for Breaking Online Community Norms

One of the highlights from this semester has been my Lang & Tech students’ contributions to what I call “Digital Show & Tell.”  Each class session, a different student brings in some sample of internet discourse and explains to us what they find interesting about it.  We’ve talked about copypasta, Tumblr chats, CoffeeDad, Redditt’s photoshop battles, confessions on scarymommy.com, and many other weird, wonderful, creative – and very often, humorous – internet phenomena.

Today’s RDM guest blogger, Judith Bridges, chose to focus on one particular Yelp reviewer, who has been appearing on different social media sites for her uniquely irreverent approach to reviewing.

Judith writes:

My digital show-and-tell is the case of Nathalie Walker who wrote reviews of businesses on Yelp! where she went on dates, basing the review content exclusively on how the date went. If the date was a disaster, that business got 1 star. When the date resulted in a four-and-a-half-year-long relationship, that business got 5 stars.

Nathalie has Instagram  and Twitter accounts, where she posted screen-shots of her disorderly Yelp! reviews to share them with her friends. Below is an image she posted on Instagram of her first four date reviews on Yelp!:

Instagram YelpReviews

 

Soon after, she was notified by a Yelp Support employee named Pam that her behavior disobeyed Yelp’s Content Guidelines. Nathalie used this opportunity to ask Pam out on a date. Nathalie continued to share screenshots of her email dialogue with Pam on social media. Her multimodal communication practices, i.e. sharing screenshots on Instagram and Twitter of her unruly behavior on Yelp, eventually helped her date reviews go viral after Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Yahoo, Self and other websites featured her hilarious story. She even got positive tweets from ex-boyfriends —  as well as the writer of the song alluded to in the review above.

I believe this example is notable because it shows how in online spaces, there are norms of communication, established by the online community, which regulate the discourse in that particular space. As Kiesler, Kraut, Resnick, and Kittur (2011) point out, “normative behaviors may be codified and articulated or may be left implicit, and they may be contested by some members at times, but most of the time, people will agree about behaviors that are acceptable, and those that are not” (p. 3). Rules for online communication can either be developed, negotiated and co-constructed by  users, or they can be set a priori by  moderators who regulate people’s communicative behavior (Kytölä & Westinen, 2015). When someone disobeys the set conventions in a particular online space, this behavior stands out. In some cases it can be considered trolling, but in  the case of Natalie W, her  unique approach to review writing makes her texts comical. For regulated sites like Yelp!, texts that challenge community norms are removed, but that didn’t stop Natalie W. from continuing the comedy show on other platforms, and this is likely what helped her story go viral.

Blommaert and Varis (2014) explain that virality comes from the re-entextualizations of existing signs, or “meaningful communicative operations that demand different levels of agency and creativity of the user” (p. 16). Although Blommeart and Varis (2014) focus on memes, I would argue that what Natalie W. has done on Yelp! (and sharing the screenshots on other social media) performs a similar action of taking something recognizable, giving it a new and unique twist , and re-contextualizing it across various social media sites.

It’s worth noting that Natalie W. was aware of the impact negative Yelp! reviews can have on a business, especially a small one. This is why she only left these reviews for only large companies who wouldn’t be hurt by a 1-star review, such as a football stadium or Times Square. “If someone decides not to attend Yale University because of a one-star review some bizarre Internet girl wrote on Yelp!, that person probably should not be attending Yale University,” she said.

References

Barnes, Z. (2016, Jan 11). “This woman got banned from Yelp for her hilarious date reviews.” Self.com Retrieved from http://www.self.com/trending/2016/01/this-woman-got-banned-from-yelp-for-her-hilarious-date-reviews/

Kiesler, S., Kraut, R., Resnick, P., & Kittur, A. (2011). “Regulating Behavior in Online Communities.” In R. Kraut & P. Resnick (Eds.) Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design (pp. 125-178) Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kytölä, S., & Westinen, E. (2015). “I be da reel gansta”—A Finnish footballer’s twitter writing and metapragmatic evaluations of authenticity. Discourse, Context & Media, 8(1), 6-19.

McNeal, S. (2016, Jan 10). “Woman gets kicked off Yelp after posting a bunch of reviews of her dates.” Buzzfeed.com. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/yelp-date-reviews#.hsZwdVEK5

Varis, P., & Blommaert, J. (2014). Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 108, 1-21.

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